Jean Michel Basquiat. Photo via Wall Street Journal. Jean Michel Basquiat. Photo via Wall Street Journal.

Childhood

Jean Michel Basquiat was born on December 22nd, 1960 in New York. Just before his birth, his older brother Max died, making Jean Michel the oldest of the siblings. The family lived in Brooklyn where Basquiat's father, Gérard Basquiat worked as an accountant while Basquiat's mother, Matilde Basquiat, was deeply artistic. The interest was transferred to Jean Michel, and together as Mother and Son visited New York's art museums, galleries, and cultural institutions. Jean Michel was a talented child who learned to read and write as a 4-year-old. In addition, his parents' ancestry had made the young Basquiat multilingual, making him fluent in Spanish, French, and English.

”Baptism”, 1980, Basquiat. Photo: Wikiart.org. ”Baptism”, 1980, Basquiat. Photo: Wikiart.org.

As a seven-year-old Basquiat was hit by a car, which led to a broken arm and a ruptured spleen. During the period he was in a hospital, he occupied himself with Gray's Anatomy, an anatomy book for medical students. The macabre illustrations inspired the young Basquiat and influenced his later artistry. In addition, he used the title as his band name when the artist formed the band Gray together with a couple of friends in the 1970s.

”Per Capita”, 1981. Photo: Wikiart.org. ”Per Capita”, 1981. Photo: Wikiart.org.

Although the family was fairly well-off and belonged to the middle class of Brooklyn, Basquiat's upbringing was turbulent. His mother suffered from mental illness and since Basquiat's thirteenth birthday, his mother was often hospitalized at different institutions. The father was violent and Jean Michel ran away from home on repeated occasions.

Basquiat with Andy Warhol in New York, 1985. Photo via Sleek Magazine. Basquiat with Andy Warhol in New York, 1985. Photo via Sleek Magazine.

From Brooklyn to Manhattan

At the age of 17, Basquiat dropped out of school for good and left Brooklyn for Manhattan. There he lived from day to day, slept with friends, acquaintances and in parks while devoting himself to selling homemade postcards and t-shirts. In 1979, Basquiat saw Andy Warhol walk into a restaurant, who he greatly admired. Basquiat followed and offered Warhol to buy a few postcards. The purchase would form the basis for the future friendship of both artists and their future partnership.

Still interested in Andy Warhol? Click here!

Photo via CNN. Photo via CNN

In the 1970s, New York was covered by a new graffiti tag, "SAMO". The tag was usually accompanied by short poetical sentences, some political and other surrealistically incomprehensible. The epigram stood for "Same Old Shit" and behind the pseudonym, stood Jean Michel Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz. During the next three years, they worked on the epigram together until 1980 when they went their separate ways after a dispute. Passers-byers could then instead see the sentence "SAMO IS DEAD" around Lower Manhattan.

Basquiat. Photo via Causa Operária. Basquiat. Photo via Causa Operária.

By the 1980s, Basquiat had established himself as an artist. In 1980, he attended an enormous art exhibition, the Time Square Show, in the middle of Manhattan, with artists such as Keith Haring, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer and Fab 5 Freddy. The exhibition included over 100 artists, and Basquiat himself contributed a large mural.

”Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump”, 1982. Photo: Wikiart.org. ”Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump”, 1982. Photo: Wikiart.org.

In the early 1980s, Basquiat's career continued to progress. He had received several positive reviews after the exhibition at Times Square and in 1982 he was joined to the gallerist Annina Nosei. In the following year, Basquiat’s work was included at the Whitney Biennial. The artist was then only 22 years old and thus the youngest ever represented at the prestigious exhibition. Basquiat was an established artist in New York as well as on the American art scene.

”Dos Cabezas”, 1982 by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Wikiart.org. ”Dos Cabezas”, 1982 by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Wikiart.org.

1980s America

His place in the art scene, on the other hand, was not guaranteed - the fact that he was black made the artwork more complicated for Basquiat than for other artists. He repeatedly testified against the racism that affected him and other black Americans, something that Basquiat commented on in his work throughout his career.

"Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)", 1983. Photo via sugarcanemag.com. "Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)", 1983. Photo via sugarcanemag.com.

Basquiat was shaken by the murder of Michael Stewart, a 25-year-old graffiti artist who was battered by two white policemen in 1983 so badly that he died two weeks later. ‘Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)’ by Basquiat portrays an inverted black figure abused by two white police officers.

”Irony of the Negro Policeman”, år 1981. Foto: Wikiart.org. ”Irony of the Negro Policeman”, år 1981. Foto: Wikiart.org.

He often portrayed black Americans whom he admired, such as the boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Luis and the jazz musician Charlie Parker. Basquiat said that the black citizens lose with their absence in art, which was a direct reflection of their marginalized position in society. By portraying black culture and heroes, often with glories or crowns as victors, Basquiat challenged Western history, historical writing, and institutionalized racism.

”Boxer”, år 1982. Foto: Wikiart.org. ”Boxer”, år 1982. Foto: Wikiart.org.

Artistry

Jean Michel Basquiat's artistry is characterized by powerful, intense tones side by side with a more earthy palette. He was part of the figurative school, whose return broke against the 1960s dominant minimalism. His form of expression is characterized by symbols, charts, stick figures and text, where the skull and the crown are constantly repeated as motifs.

”Ribs, Ribs”, 1982. Photo: Wikiart.org. ”Ribs, Ribs”, 1982. Photo: Wikiart.org.

His raw, extreme and sometimes childish style was perceived by some as untrained, which sometimes confused art experts and critics. Others perceived his art as the perfect balance between visually appealing and intellectual elements. Basquiat commented on repeated dualities such as heritage and modernity, collectivity and property, and originality and inspiration sources, often driven by their tireless struggle to problematize injustice.

Basquiat with Keith Haring. Photo: artribune.com Basquiat with Keith Haring. Photo: artribune.com

Basquiat’s Legacy

Basquiat suffered from drug addiction during most of his adult life, affecting both his relationships and artistry. In fact, Basquiat stated in an interview that he could occasionally use up to 100 bags of heroin a day. The year before his death, Basquiat moved to Hawaii in an attempt to become drug-free, but when he returned to New York, he again resumed his abuse. On August 12th, 1988, Basquiat was found dead in his apartment in NoHo.

”Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits”, 1982. Photo: Wikiart.org. ”Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits”, 1982. Photo: Wikiart.org.

Despite his short career, Jean Michel Basquiat's artistry has strongly influenced the international art scene and has had a profound effect on the public throughout the decades that have elapsed since his death. Basquiat's art is as relevant today as it was in the 1980s and his popularity is bigger than ever. An example of this was when the work Untitled (1982) was sold at Christie's in 2017 for a record-setting $ 110.5 million. It's not just the world record for an American artist, but also the most expensive piece of art to be sold by a black artist ever.

Detail from Basquiat’s "Untitled", 1982. Photo: Christie's. Detail from Basquiat’s "Untitled", 1982. Photo: Christie's.

Basquiat's mysterious character in combination with his artistry has generated tremendous attention in popular culture. There have been several movies about the artist's life, both documentaries and feature films, including Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat (2017) by Sara Driver, Jean-Michel Basquiat - The Radiant Child (2010) by Tamra Davis and Basquiat (1996) by Julian Schnabel. His face and work used for the design of clothing and shoes as well as American cosmetics brand Urban Decay in 2017 created the collection "Urban Decay x Jean-Michel Basquiat".

Jean Michel Basquiat doll from Medicom. The figure has become a collectible example. Photo: Caliroots.se. Jean Michel Basquiat doll from Medicom. Photo: Caliroots.se.

However, companies that used Basquiat's art to market and sell their own products have not always encountered positive reactions, when Basquiat actively criticized the increasing commercialization.

Photo: Greats.com. Photo: Greats.com.

Director Sara Driver, who was also a good friend of Basquiat in the 1980s, said in Interview Magazine:

“I think it must have been very heavy for him to be 27 and to have become a commodity. I think that weighed on him because that wasn’t who he was. I think he would’ve flipped out if he saw people walking around with T-shirts. He wasn’t Keith Haring, who was into mass-marketing his stuff. Jean was a fine art painter, that’s how he saw himself.”

More works by Jean Michel Basquiat can be found here.

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